Sam stood on the apron of the stage, looking at the mannequin. It was wearing a red dress and he liked what he saw. It had been a long night with many trips up to the rafters above the auditorium adjusting the lights. He was having trouble getting the red to pop in the dress and also to get some depth. The problem had been the darker lights on the shadow side which kept turning the red dress grey or blue. But when he turned down the darker lights the set looked flat. Finally though, he had gotten the angle, the dimmer settings, and the gel color just right. He had moved the dress all over the stage, or at least where Leslie would be moving and the effect he wanted held. It was just one scene, but the red dress was central to the plot. Now he was exhausted and just needed to rest. He looked forward to going over to the all night diner down the street and getting some French Toast and Apple Pie. Then bed.
But first, back upstairs to shut everything down. He stood up to head up the stairs when he saw Anna coming towards him from offstage left. Crap. Anna was engaged to his best friend, Steve. She was alright but always had some drama happening and she seemed to focus on him for advice. He didn’t mind, he liked hanging out with her, but just now he was dead tired. He could tell by her walk that she was worked up about something but he didn’t really get it until she stepped out of the shadows and into the bright stage lights. By coincidence she was wearing a red blouse and his stage nerd kicked in and he noticed that her blouse showed up nicely in his lighting as well. Then he looked at her face.
The tired feeling immediately went away replaced by an adrenaline rush. “What happened to you…I mean who did that!?”
She started crying “I’m afraid to tell you but I don’t know who else…”
“Fuck that, someone hurt you…you had better tell me.” He motioned to the front row of seats in the auditorium and they walked down there.
His strong reaction seemed to comfort her, she obviously wanted to tell someone. “It’s hard to talk about.”
“Of course it is. Take your time. Do you want some water?”
She nodded “Yes, please.”
The water was a stalling tactic to let her pull herself together and for him to calm down a bit. This was his best friends girl…he was gonna be best man at their wedding. He just needed to take a deep breath, use his head, and not do anything stupid…let the campus police handle it.
He handed her the water and sat down next to her. “Thank you.” She leaned against him, not a surprise, she had always been very tactile so he made nothing of it. “I don’t know how to start.”
“Look. I know this can be hard to talk about.”
All the men on campus had taken training about what it was like when a woman is assaulted and how to react appropriately. He had listened and knew sometimes the women blamed themselves. “It’s not your fault. No matter what happened its not your…”
“No. Thats not it.” She looked away from him. “I know it’s not my fault.”
“Well you just tell me when you’re ready.”
“I’m worried about you.” She turned and looked him in the face.
“Oh don’t worry about me. I won’t rush off and go try to beat him up. We will let the cops handle it. Have you told Steve yet?”
“That’s why I am worried about you.”
“Because of Steve? Don’t worry, we’ve been friends forever. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid too.”
“It was Steve.” She was visibly shaking.
He didn’t say anything for a long time. He remembered the part about believing the woman but he was having a hard time with this. Steve? The most upright guy he knew. He would never hit a woman. He decided to fake his way through the conversation and hear her out. “Was he drunk or something?”
“No. He’s never drunk when it happens.”
“When it happens? You mean it’s happened before?”
With the house lights down and the stage on full bright it had the sensation of making him feel they were cocooned together. As he waited for her to continue, the soft rush of the HVAC system and the hum of the light dimmers up in the lighting coves were the only sounds; they were familiar sounds and he focused on them in order to recenter and calm himself. Well, he thought, could his former best friend be abusing his sweet little fiancé? Can’t get much worse than that.
IT GETS WORSE
She took a deep breath before speaking again. “You’re going to think I’m so weak but I was scared. On our first date…”
“He hit you on your first date?”
“No, well I mean yes. But it was worse. He forced me…”
“Oh my god.”
“Then he told me I belonged to him and if I ever try to leave him he’d hurt me and my mom really bad.”
He knew better than to ask why she didn’t just leave. He might have been fooled by his friend but he wasn’t so naive to think a woman could just walk out on an abuser. Especially with a threat like that.
“You’re not weak but I’m a fool.” He was still processing, should he believe her over his friend? Then he thought of the consequences. If he took her side and she was lying well, he could lose a good friend. On the other hand, if he didn’t believe her and she was telling the truth, well the consequences for her would be brutal.
She shook her head. “How could you be expected to know he was lying? He fools everyone, hell my mom loves him.”
He knew what he had to do, look Steve in the eye and ask him. Then…well he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. Meanwhile, a righteous fury was building inside of him. That Steve had betrayed him, and what he might have done to Anna. Despite his rationalizing, In his heart, he believed her.
But even then, as he processed all of that he was questioning his own motives. Because best friend or not, he was in love with Anna.
“WELL ISN’T THIS COZY”
They both jumped, startled by Steve’s sudden appearance up on the stage. Standing on the edge of the apron, blinded by the lights he squinted down at them.
“Stevie. What that hell have you done?”
Steve gave a sweeping arm gesture “Maybe I should ask what you’ve done? You and this whore.”
He started to get up to rush the stage but before he could Anna bolted for the backstage door. That was good, he wanted her out of this. He would handle it. “Dude, I thought I knew who you were. You need help.”
“Seriously you’re gonna let a little slut come between us?”
“The little slut who you were engaged too? I never would’ve let anyone come between us. But that changed when you…”
“Hit her? Oh don’t be so self-righteous. Like you never slapped a chick around. What about that Dora babe? I noticed she’s not coming around much anymore. Or then maybe she jealous of you and Miss Anna. Do you talk about her in your sleep?”
“Dora moved on and why is not your business but I never hit any woman. And I sure as hell never…”
“You never what? What did she tell you?”
It was hard to say, and he could tell Steve had been drinking. He didn’t want to say it. “You forced her to have sex with you. Then you threatened her.”
“Don’t be such a delicate flower.” He was tottering on the edge of the orchestra pit now. “For God’s sake Stan, she was a tease. Did she tell you that part? Hell you saw the way she looked at me in that Bio class.”
“Yeah I saw her looking at you. She wanted a date, not to be attacked.”
Steve took a step back and looked ready to vault the orchestra pit opening into the auditorium when he saw a blur coming from stage left. The blur looked a lot like Anna. It looked a lot like Anna holding a handgun.
It looked a lot like Anna holding a handgun because it was, and as she stopped mid-stage she pointed the weapon at Steve. “Get on your knees!”
Steve, gave a half laugh and then looked at her “whatcha gonna do with that bitch?”
“On your fucking knees!!!!” She pulled the hammer back.
“Alright alright!” Steve dropped to his knees and put his hands behind his head without being asked.
Anna yelled for Stan to dial 911 while she kept the gun leveled at Steve.
“You’re gonna hurt someone with that. You know they say the thing about a gun is someone can take it and use it on you.” He looked at her and gave her a threatening smirk.
She must have considered what he said because she ordered him onto his stomach. He complied. “I caught you with my betrayer friend and I got a little angry. I guess I drank too much. And for that I got a gun pulled on me.” He strained his neck to look at her. “What do you and whore-dog over there have to tell the cops? I mean what do you have that you can prove?”
He was laughing. “The cops are gonna cart the two of you off and take me to the hospital to make sure I’m not traumatized by all this violence. I think I can work up a good cry by the time they get here.”
Anna motioned Stan to come up to the stage and then handed him the replica prop gun.
Steve snorted “this is beautiful, now you’ve both held a gun on me.”
Anna pulled her phone out of her pocket. She had been backstage when Sam and Steve were arguing.
She pushed the play button.
TEN MONTHS LATER
It was the beginning of Sam’s Senior year and though he and Anna had texted a few times over the summer he hadn’t seen her since the end of the school year. Even with Steve’s conviction, some of his frat brothers continued to spread rumors about her. She decided to finish out the year and transfer.
Sam had lost some friends as well, but had gained some better friends. Besides, at 6’3″ and 195 pounds, few people dared to bother him. Those that did he ignored.
He was sitting on a picnic table when he saw her walking towards him across the quad. Once he saw her she gave a little recognition wave. It was warm out and she was wearing a short skirt, her hair down and cascading over he shoulders. His heart damned near stopped. He had been talking to a girl that he kinda sorta liked but she, recognizing Anna as well, patted him on the shoulder, gave her a friendly wave and left the playing field.
“Man am I glad so see you. But what are you doing here?”
“What I’m doing right now is starving. Wanna grab a pizza?”
It was a short walk to Al’s but long enough for her to fill him on her plans: she was stopping by on her way to finish her senior year at a women’s college out East. She had big plans: she would go to law school and then found a non-profit law firm to help abused women.
He had never seen this Anna before. She had always seemed…not superficial, that would be the wrong word. She cared deeply for others, that had come out in some of their talks. Maybe passive, or even timid was a better word. But that mouse was no more. There was a glow in her eyes, as if they were lit by some slow burning inner fire. She still had the gentle smile and sweet laugh, but now, she had grown into something new and, he thought, something even more beautiful.
“Penny for your thoughts?” She took his hand in hers.
They were on their way back to her car, and he was trying to keep it together. He had been hoping she was back to stay, or maybe had some plans that included him. But he was struggling to see where he could possibly fit in. He decided it was now or never:
“I love you.”
“I know, and I love too” she said as she drew him closer, walking arm in arm now. But…”
“But you’re not that person anymore. And I just don’t fit in I guess.”
She pushed him away, a little harder than she meant to. “Don’t speak for me. I don’t want that again. Ever. From anyone. That’s not it at all.” Now it was her turn to struggle for words. “I need to work on myself first. I am not sure I know how to be healthy in a relationship.”
They were standing by her little convertible now, her leaning against the drivers door, looking up at him, both his hands in hers now. “Can you give me a little time? I mean I’m not saying for sure but…”
“You know damned well I will. But you know, you better hurry, Danita is hot on my heels.” He said with a wicked grin.
She pulled him down and kissed him on the mouth. “Yeah, I liked her little wave. I’ll kick both your asses.”
Then she slid behind the wheel, and he watched as she drove off in her little car, her hair blowing in the wind, laughing, wild and free.
© Glenn R Keller 2022, All Rights Reserved